Dinner with Jack in a Chinese Restaurant


        Already far from the smoke of warn-torn Manchester, the Jewish Reverend rejoiced in the freshness of the country air, and relished the cool breeze which tugged
at his clothes as he made his way up to the farm. The peaceful meadows and contented cattle belied the ongoing war in Europe, and the ever-present threat of air raids
in the city, which had led to the evacuation of the two young Jewish boys he was about to visit. His task was to check on their spiritual and physical welfare.

        They met him with exuberant respect at the gate, and he was satisfied to see them wearing yarmulkes. No doubt, he thought, they were in good, caring hands.
But in an hour or so, he would find out the terrible truth


        Two people attempting to walk abreast along a main street in Calcutta during the rush hour is akin to stopping a tidal wave.

        Even proceeding Indian file requires a special technique which Jack was ably demonstrating right now, as we painstakingly made our way towards the Chinese restaurant. I periodically glimpsed the familiar silvery-white curls as his head bobbed in time to his purposeful stride 5 or 10 yards ahead of me through the crowd, and I followed like an eel, squeezing sideways through the narrow gaps in the oncoming rush, one hand protectively clamped on my wallet in the front pocket of my jeans, and the other held to my chest to make myself as thin as possible whilst hundreds of bodies pushed past in the opposite direction. The incessant blast of car horns went into paroxysm each time a reckless pedestrian strayed from the relative safety of the broken pavement, and unexpected obstacles suddenly appeared with regularity, including numerous goats munching in the plentiful garbage; and side-on to the rush, fleshless cows standing motionless in their skeletons. Pavement vendors somehow conducted business at cockroach level among the swishing ankles and drumming feet, with tiny paraffin lamps dimly illuminating their goods. Their strident sales pitches complemented the Calcutta cacophony.

        Skillfully sardining alongside me, a mother and baby surfaced, and a hand began tugging insistently at my sleeve. From time to time she was washed away by the breaking waves of humanity we were wading into, yet she always reappeared, like a cork in a flood tide, and reattached herself to my shirt, intoning:

        "Very hungry, Baba"

        Looking down at the-well nourished face belied the statement, and her coal-black eyes shone healthily in the yellow glow of the street lamps. The plump baby provided ample corroboration.

        "Very very hungry, Baba" she insisted.

        I shook my head to register my strong doubt, and she returned a captivating smile of disappointment, an ability which no doubt contributed to the rare success she obviously enjoyed - an achievement not reserved for most of Calcutta's multitude of mendicants. She stuck resolutely for a long time before giving me up as a poor prospect, or more likely, because we'd now crossed over into somebody else's begging territory.

        Familiar smells now wafted around me, and blended themselves into a hard-to-describe mix of moist excrement and dried urine, spiced with savoury wafts from cooking pots, the hot sweet breath of baking bread, the sugary coconut allure of a million sweetmeats, the throat-catching stink of car exhausts, and the chemical perfume of hair pomade. I had arrived at Calcutta's Dum-Dum airport on an international flight that same afternoon, and as usual, in spite of all my previous visits, I was feeling the dizzy unreality of culture shock all over again. Amidst this, I mused at the tricks life was playing with me.

        I had been a humble volunteer for Jack for a short period some years before, and at that time knew very little about the man, other than wholeheartedly admiring his work. With a friendship grown at a distance and nurtured by subsequent visits to Calcutta, I was actually going to write a book about him, and the prospect now seemed quite unbelievable. And if I had previously worried about whether he would agree to the project, I was now, in the fading euphoria, beginning to feel increasingly anxious about the dawning responsibility.

        I had to put my private thoughts away, when a full half hour later, we finally reached the restaurant which sported a conspicuous 'CLOSED' sign hanging behind the glass on the front door. An elegantly dressed doorman however courteously opened it wide for us. When Jack pointed to the sign and helpfully turned it round the right way, the man waggled his head, as if mounted on a ball and socket fitting whilst beaming with mild embarrassment and gratitude, in that wonderful way that only Indians can do. 

        We climbed upstairs, where from this perspective, everything it seemed was red, from the decor to the crumpled but clean uniforms of the staff. Even the carpet was red, and adhered slightly to the soles of my shoes as I walked, a sticky quality acquired from years of dripping plates, and condensed smoke from the cooking oils in the kitchen.

        "It's not a de-luxe job" said Jack superfluously, as he sat opposite me, positioning his shoulder bag strategically next to him on the empty chair.

        "But the nosh is excellent and cheap" he added assertively, and reassuringly.

        Knowing Jack was vegetarian, I suggested he choose a selection which we could share. With his half-frame glasses perched on the tip of his nose, he read off a number of dishes which the waiter painstakingly wrote down in full, using outsized characters, like the handwriting of a child. I was curious to know why this otherwise intelligent-looking waiter seemed so backward.

        "Has he just learned to write, or what?" I queried, after the waiter had repeated the order as a double check, and left us with a little bow.

        Jack laughed heartily.

        "No, not at all," he replied, still chuckling.

        "It's just because the Chinese chef in there is apparently half-blind. Writing any smaller than he did would likely result in us getting a nice spread of chicken, pork, and beef, instead of our healthy vegetarian fare!"

        I smiled at my own vision of a stooped and wizened oriental fellow in the hot kitchen, peering at the order slips through thick, steamed-up lenses.

        "Do you think that vegetarianism goes hand in hand with spiritual development Jack?" I asked. 

        He fixed me with gray-green wide eyes, and said in a mock solemn tone, with an extended forefinger rocking towards me.

        "Remember what the prophet Mohammad said?: ...Don't let your belly be a graveyard for animals"

        He looked thoughtful for a moment, and added with a grin:

        "That must sound wonderfully dramatic in Arabic you know"                                     

        "Well" he continued "I'm almost 100 per cent vegetarian now, but I'm not fanatical about it, and maybe once a year or so I might have fish or something I really fancy. The last time it was pickled herring - my father used to sell it in the family shop. I ate it in his memory really, and it was simply delicious. Other times I've relented and had things like bacon and eggs, and I remember tucking in to a lamb chop a few years back which I really enjoyed, but you know....."

        He was shaking his head slowly.

        "These things might taste terrific, but each time I notice that it leads to a kind of bloated, uncomfortable feeling, and Mohammad's metaphor always comes to mind then. So I do think it is a desirable thing for us to abstain for health reasons, especially these days, when animals are injected with antibiotics, and all kinds of other things to make the meat more saleable. And yes, also on the spiritual level, I certainly do not think it helps us to be consuming something which is the end product of an animal's terror - and there is no way that you can convince me that they do not experience the same terrible fear that we would feel, knowing they are being taken out to be killed"

        I nodded grimly, reliving an experience years before in a slaughterhouse, and remembering the wild-eyed panic on the faces of the animals as they were forcibly herded towards their fate.

        "But then it is difficult you know, to just draw a line" Jack added. "Christ's disciples after all, were fishermen, and there is no record of him condemning their occupation, and who really knows what fish might suffer in their long, flapping death? So I think the choice depends on one's personal circumstances. I mean if you are a chicken farmer, and depend on it to make a living, then in terms of human survival, it's acceptable, but if you can live your life without being a part of the process which requires animals to be killed, then that for me is much preferable. I personally however don't see any harm in eating dairy produce, or non-fertilised eggs, which do not involve taking life"

        The food subsequently arrived with a surprise in store. We were both astonished to see one of the plates sporting two large crab claws protruding from an appetising mix of noodles and vegetables. I couldn't suppress my laughter.

        "Well, so much for the bold clear handwriting!" I observed.

        Jack wore a mildly exasperated expression, and was speaking in Bengali, waving his hand at the dish, as if chasing flies away. The nonplussed waiter scrutinised his records, then with an embarrassed smile announced that it was in fact destined for another table, and the offending crustacean was duly whisked away, with multiple murmurings of “very very sorry”. Jack was smiling, as he spooned a tempting selection on to my plate.

        "You know, that crab just reminded me of the time I was evacuated from my native Manchester on to a farm during the war. I was nine or ten then, and since there were two other Jewish boys in that area, they sent a Rabbi, well actually a Reverend, once a month from the synagogue in Manchester, to make sure we were all wearing our caps, saying our prayers, and to check what we were eating. I knew of course that we weren't allowed to eat pork, but the owners were simple English farm folk, and they thought it hilarious if they killed a black market pig, and were able to con me into eating it, or pork sausages and things. But at that age you see, I didn't know crab was taboo, and I'll never forget this poor Reverend's face when I proudly told him that once a month as a special treat, we got tinned crab, and how simply delicious and really fantastic it was and I added enthusiastically - had he ever tried it himself, I asked? At first he just couldn't believe his ears, and when it finally dawned, he looked as though the world was coming to an end, and started spluttering: 'Oh my God! ... Wot is dis you are telling me!

        Jack's imitation of him was wonderfully funny. He paused and laughed at the memory until his eyes glistened.

        "So the report sent back to your parents was not the best I imagine?"

        "Indeed not, and when I eventually returned home to Manchester, my family were completely horrified at what had I become, so they put me back into Hebrew school, where - after years of indoctrination - I became almost ultra orthodox - more so even than my parents. My grandparents were refugees from Nazi Germany and really strict Jews, and they used to take me to their synagogue – which would only admit the most orthodox adherents. That's when everyone thought I really had the makings of a Rabbi"

        "Did you think so yourself?" I asked

        "I did then, I suppose" he answered with a smile.

       The food was indeed delicious, and the subtle tastes overtook conversation, except for soft grunts and sighs of appreciation, until we had efficiently cleared the lot.

        "So, as a boy, you were really as devout a Jew as anybody could be I suppose?" I began, now feeling rather distended.

        Jack leaned back and toyed with his unused dessert spoon, staring at it intently. His face took on a serious look.

        "Yes, absolutely, and it's quite extraordinary really to think ...." he began quietly,

        "...It's incredible actually to think that as children, after being subjected to this fanatical Jewish teaching - how we all just accepted it - just swallowed the lot - without a single doubt or question. I actually believed then that we Jews were the 'chosen' people, that we had our own unique relationship with God, and that all the rest - Christians, Muslims Hindus and everyone else - were somehow inferior people to us. Of course in those days we didn't know much about third world religions, but in terms of the Anglican Church, and the Catholics, we really felt that these people had mistaken beliefs, particularly having all these idols of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and various saints in their churches. This is very much against the Jewish faith, and none of that we could accept. And today, when I see Hindu children here worshipping idols and attending special ceremonies to immerse their Gods in the river, it's equally incredible how, in exactly the same way, so many young people can just instantly believe in a certain system of religious thought without a giving it any rational or analytical consideration, like small children believing in fairies, or Santa Claus. You might call it a phenomenon of mass credence.”

        "But don't you think this applies to all religions?" I asked, "I mean, you automatically believe what your parents present to you as the truth?"

        "In the very first place, yes," he answered, "But that should not lead to a child growing up in an environment where he or she cannot be aware and tolerant of other faiths, ask questions, and finally form his or her own personal belief by study, introspection, and intuition, as well as by using pure common sense – the latter being just as important. Rational and analytical thought is something that should be taught in schools, along with geography and arithmetic. The danger comes in inheriting fanatical beliefs - in exactly the way that I did - and then like so many other misguided folks, to consider this to be the one and only path to the divine. This is not only bigoted nonsense, it's spiritually crippling - and, as countless senseless wars and millions of dead have so tragically proved - politically catastrophic"

        Jack was tapping the back of the spoon softly on the table with emotion. This had the unexpected benefit of attracting the waiter, who deftly cleared the debris, exposing numerous blotches on the tablecloth where we had misjudged the drips from laden spoons on the trajectory from our plates. A large platter of fresh fruit arrived moments later.

         "Beautiful, hmm?" said Jack, reaching for a deep red apple, rotating it on its stalk until it broke off.

        "That's the beauty of India: every climate on one continent, from Himalayan snows to tropical beaches, and all the wonders of Mother Nature in between. It should in theory be a paradise"

        He peeled it with a blunt knife, and some difficulty.

       "Who was actually giving you the religious instruction?" I asked

        "As a child I was taught by the Rabbis and my Hebrew teacher" he replied, "And these were men who held almost fanatical beliefs, so it wasn't a very constructive approach to God."

        He smiled sardonically, and went on:

        "In fact it made absolutely no sense whatsoever, as we were alienated totally from the rest of a society to whom many of us actually owed our lives. I don't think anyone I knew then the extent to which we Jews owed our lives to the British Armed Forces. Some of my mother's family perished in the Holocaust, but she managed to get her parents out of Bavaria by going there herself in 1939, and at one stage was rounded up and with a large group of others, and made to witness the burning of the synagogue. She only got out herself because she had a British passport. My father used to get lists from the Quakers and go around fellow Jews in Manchester, begging them to help get our people out of Germany, by hiring them as guest workers - gardeners or whatever, and I remember him coming home in despair, as nobody wanted to help. People don't talk about that now. All of this made a very deep impression on me"

        "Do you think that the Jewish attitude perhaps contributed to their persecution and suffering?" I ventured.

        "Yes, I do - simply because they regarded themselves as the chosen people, or a superior race" he replied.

        "There's always been a difficulty with the Jews identifying themselves with the society they find themselves in the Diaspora. Ironically though, they were far better integrated in Germany than anywhere else in Europe, and according to my mother, the hatred of Jews was even more intense in Poland - it's just that the Germans organised their persecution so diabolically well, whereas the Poles allowed many to escape over the border".

        "But what happened to your own Jewish faith?" I asked curiously. 

        He was silent for a moment, and replied slowly:

       "It just dropped away naturally one day" he replied. "Like a leaf in the autumn"

        He paused, then added with a smile. 

       "Except that it was an unforgettably beautiful summer's day when it happened"

        I waited for Jack to resume after the waiter had brought the check, but he pressed his thumb and forefinger against tightly closed eyes.

        "I don't seem to have the same energy these days" he said from under his palm.  "That's what happens I suppose when you're my age and have lived in this hot and polluted comer of the world for over 20 years – if you don't mind, I'm going to head for home, I've really had it for today"

        We paid the bill, and left the red world for the real world outside where sleeping forms were already stretched out on the dirty garbage-strewn pavement - indistinct elongated bundles, wrapped in rags. It was difficult to relate these abstract shapes to human beings, but under each layer of soiled material was a man, woman or child, escaping their hardship in sleep, until the morrow. Immune to the plight of the pavement dwellers, groups of well-dressed pedestrians nosed out from the pavement on either side of the road, hopeful of a break in the endless flow of battered vehicles which swept urgently past in a tide of noise and fumes.

        Jack shouted close to my ear.
"I'll be at the kids' school in the morning - Number 10 Nilmoni Mitra Street - why don't you join me there about 9 o'clock?"

        I nodded vigorously, holding an affirmative thumb up in the air to save my voice against the noise, and instinctively waved at a taxi which was already almost past us, yet decided to stop in a screech of bald tyres, nearly causing an accident.

        As we drove off, I peered out through the small back window to wave goodbye, but Jack was already almost out of sight. I watched for an instant the lone figure with the shoulder bag, one extraordinary human being in a city of millions, walking slowly back to his tiny home next to the brothel, a once-ultra-orthodox Jew, whose faith he had said, had dropped away, like a leaf falling from a tree.

        I wondered how that could have happened.